There’s a Good Reason Not to Give Your Loved Ones Special Gifts This Year

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Around the holidays, the thoughtful gift giver understandably wants to find something unique for each person on his or her list. Consumer researchers say you probably shouldn’t bother.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, a phenomenon dubbed as “over-individuation” can cause gift givers to select less-than-ideal presents for the people on their holiday lists.

Basically, the idea is that when shoppers have to buy gifts for multiple people, they tend to want to buy a different (or “individuated”) thing for each person—even when some of the individuals on the list would prefer exactly the same thing. For instance, three people on your list might all be overjoyed to receive the same sweater, or perhaps the same Legos set or a $25 gift card for the same retailer. But in this scenario, in which several recipients would like the same present, shoppers generally don’t want to play ball. And the likely reason they don’t is that doing so, ironically, doesn’t seem all that thoughtful from the perspective of the giver.

In a handful of experiments for the study, researchers asked shoppers to choose from a selection of gifts to buy. Among the options, one of the gifts was pre-tested to be the clear favorite among the recipients. But in many instances, shoppers didn’t choose this option.

In some cases, shoppers had to choose only one gift for one person. This made life simple for the buyers: They almost always picked the obviously preferred present. But in experiments when shoppers had to buy for multiple people, they often decided against getting the same gift for everybody, even though doing so would have made the recipients happiest. Instead, the givers tended to buy a different thing for each person on the list. They did so even with the knowledge that the recipients would not be comparing gifts with each other.

By choosing a unique gift for each recipient, givers would somehow feel like they were being more thoughtful, even though they weren’t choosing the gifts that all of the recipients truly wanted most. It’s a situation in which gift giving can be revealed to be more about making the giver, rather than the recipient, feel good.

“Our research indicates that shoppers selecting gifts for more than one person at a time may focus on getting different gifts for each recipient rather than on simply getting what each would like best,” write the study’s authors, Mary Steffel of the University of Cincinnati and Robyn A. LeBoeuf of the University of Florida.

Their advice is to forget about buying unique gifts for everyone, and to instead focus on what the people are on your list truly want most: “To help consumers from losing sight of what gifts people would most appreciate, we encourage gift givers to think about the type of gifts the recipient would most likely pick for themselves.”

So if four or five people on your list want the same exact thing, so be it. Snatch up however many of the items are necessary to make them all happy.